With the inspiring goal of acting as a beacon of hope for all to see, the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice has opened an LGBTQ+ satellite safe space at 258 West Market Street in Akron.
Opening on January 17th—Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—the resource center’s stated goals are to “broaden the network of caring organizations in the minority community, to influence social norms that contribute to the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and to increase advocacy for social services for people of color who are living with HIV/AIDS and people who have suffered from sexual orientation stigma within the African American community.”
Named in honor of Rustin—the legendary out gay, Black civil rights champion who helped organize the March on Washington, Freedom Rides, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—the new center is a partnership with the Akron AIDS Collaborative, an African-American HIV/AIDS education, prevention, and advocacy organization.
The Collaborative will be celebrating celebrating its 23rd year of operation in March. Steve Arrington, the executive director of the Collaborative, said it is is the only organization of its kind in Ohio.
23 years ago there were five organizations throughout the state in cities like Cincinnati and Dayton, but they’ve since been taken over by other, larger organizations and the Akron AIDS Collaborative is the only independent such organization left.
The Collaborative originally started as a support group by and for Black gay men called the Akron Brother Circle. Arrington said staff and volunteers would go door-to-door in communities affected by HIV/AIDS and share information with those who needed it.
They operated for a while without any grants or funding until they decided it was time to expand the organization. They then connected with allies in the community and received a grant from the health department. Soon after, they renamed the organization the Akron AIDS Collaborative and the Brother Circle became a program under the Collaborative’s umbrella.
Eventually, the Collaborative connected with the First Grace United Church of Christ. Following a lack of funding, the collaborative needed a place to meet and the church opened its doors to the group. That was 15 years ago and since then, Arrington said the church has allowed them the support to grow tremendously.
“There’s no other church in the city that’s gonna do that,” he said.
From institutionalized racism, to inequity and a lack of diversity and openness, Arrington has been fighting against barriers for years in his pursuit of advocating for change in the community .
“The inequity in our gay community just ain’t right,” he said. “Furthermore, we make up 66% of all HIV cases in Summit County, but we don’t get funding for our community. It goes to other white agencies. What’s going on here?”
When COVID relief funds came to the city of Akron, the Akron AIDS Collaborative didn’t receive a dime, Arrington said. Frustrated, Arrington called Marco Sommerville, Deputy Mayor for Intergovernmental Affairs in Akron, to vent his concerns.
Two days later, Arrington received a call from Mar-quetta Boddie, executive director of Summit County Continuum of Care, an organization that specializes in housing for the homeless. Boddie told Arrington they had a $100,000 grant they wanted to give to the Akron AIDS Collaborative.
“I told her we want to open a resource center for homeless youth where they can come in and get their needs addressed,” he said.
So they filled out the paperwork, received the grant, put a budget together, and got to work.
“In the center we have mental health counseling with life solutions. We have substance abuse counseling. We do HIV testing. We do COVID testing. We have a Bro Code Support Group. We have a Transgender Safety Group and we serve meals every Wednesday,” he said. “We have two case managers that will assist you in social service needs. We will be an advocate for you and take you by your hand and walk you down the street or to any new agency that you need to go to. That’s what we’ll do at the Bayard Rustin LGBTQIA Resource Center.”
Arrington said the center also has a washer and dryer, as well as a bathroom dedicated to individuals experiencing homelessness.
“You come and take your showers, clean up and sit here and get a hot meal,” he said. “In the summer we’ll have activities and outreach events going. And it’s open to anybody, regardless of how much money you got or how much money you don’t have.”
While they did receive the $100,000 grant to open the center, there are still a lot of expenses to cover for maintaining the center like food, laundry detergent, and personal hygiene products. Arrington said they’re always looking for donations.
Arrington is quick to credit key community partners who have supported this work, including the First Grace United Church of Christ who he says has supported the LGBTQ+ community both financially and spiritually.
“If was not for this church, we would not be were we are today,” he said.
So far, Arrington said the response about the new center has been overwhelming.
“My one friend told me, ‘Steve, you’ve been preaching this song and dance for over 20 some years and one thing about you is you have not given up,’” he said. “But it’s paying off now. It seems like it’s kind of come together.”
The new center is already open and has hosted dinners and meetings since the start of the year, but there will be an official dedication ceremony on May 26. 🔥
- Learn more about the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice by going to their website.